Theatre is one of the most unique art forms known to mankind. Due to its collaborative and communal nature, one can say that theatre is an art that can truly depict human beings in their best and worst lights. The ancient Greeks looked to the tragedies produced at annual festivals for the god Dionysus as a means to discuss serious matters of the time. Similarly, in our society, theatre can serve as a catalyst for social change at a relatively large scale—but can theatre be a catalyst for change at an individual level?
Can acting become a form of therapy? Can it rehabilitate? Can it teach life skills?
For people on the autism spectrum, using theatrical tools can help promote nonverbal communication. Dr. Parasuram Ramamoorthi, founder of the theatre project Velvi and former professor of theatre at Madurai Kamaraj University in India, uses theatre as a catalyst for developmental growth for students on the spectrum.
Children on the spectrum “avoid eye contact because they want to feel safe.” One of the methods that Ramamoorthi uses to address this situation is the use of masks. When one wears a mask, their peripheral vision is blocked. As a result, students on the spectrum who wore masks were required to focus on the person they were communicating with. “This technique brought about a lot of change for children with autism. Children began to look at their parents’ face of the first time.”
Furthermore, theatre can serve as a rehabilitation tool for those in prison. In various Russian prison camps, inmates create theatre productions for their fellow convicts—varying from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From the House of the Dead”. These productions allow convicts to “cope with hardships and realize their creative potential.” More importantly, these incarcerated performers are able to let out pent-up emotions through the roles they play.
Peter Atanassow, the director of another prison theatre troupe in Germany, states that when prisoners “reach the potential where they reveal something of themselves [emotionally], it’s very intense, and often very pure.” Unlike professional actors that use various systems and methods as a means to conceal their true personas onstage, prisoners are able to use their performances to reveal inner feelings through the characters they portray.
While participating in theatre can be beneficial, doctors at the Mayo Clinic state that watching live theatre—especially comedies—can improve your physical and mental health. Watching comedic theatre productions can be helpful with stress relief. The related laughter can also increase endorphins—creating a sensation that almost resembles runners high, boost oxygen levels, and strengthen the immune system. Similarly, watching live theatre allows students to improve tolerance and theory of mind according to a study from the University of Arkansas.
As a student who has been involved in theatre from the fourth grade through college, I can argue that theatre is not just entertaining, but essential for improving one’s academic achievement and emotional development.
In a world where television, video games, Netflix, and social media are our main sources of storytelling, theatre seems to be an esoteric art form that can only be understood by people who participate in it on a regular basis. You don’t need to audition for a show, work backstage, or even take a class to reap the benefits that live theatre have to offer. I urge you to take the time to at least watch a local theatre production. Be it high school, college, community theatre, or professional, there are plenty of theatrical experiences that will motivate you to laugh, cry, or think about the world around you.